Bird watching 101: What you need to know to get started

Dwaine Oakley spends a lot of time outdoors, with his job in the Wildlife Conservation Technology program at Holland College.

With the Bennett Birding Classic underway this weekend, an avid birder shares his tips.

This weekend, about 25 birders are taking part in the Bennett Birding Classic. (trattieritratti/Shutterstock)

Even when he's off the clock, Dwaine Oakely likes to be out in nature, taking part in one of his favourite hobbies — bird watching. He's had an interest in birds for much of his life.

Oakley already spends much of his time outdoors, with his job in the Wildlife Conservation Technology program at Holland College.  

Just like people, there's secretive birds that just don't want to be seen.— Dwaine Oakley

"I can remember being fascinated by black-billed magpies in Saskatchewan when I was 10 years old," Oakley said. 

This weekend Oakley is joining about 25 other bird enthusiasts for the annual Bennett Birding Classic. In teams, birders set out on a one-day, Island-wide search for as many species as possible. 

Oakley shares some tips on how to get started in this fun hobby.

Anyone can do it

You don't have to be an expert to enjoy bird watching, he says.

Bird watching can be a fun activity for people of all ages. (Island Nature Trust)

"It's all skill levels and all ages. It doesn't matter whether you're a toddler, all the way up through to someone that's getting on in years," Oakley said.

To start, bird watching might mean venturing no farther than your own back yard. 

"It can be as little or as much as they want."

You don't need fancy equipment

Pople don't need to spend a lot of money to get into the hobby, Oakley says. 

"There are those that are pretty avid about the pastime, and will spend large sums of money on optics — everything from high-priced binoculars to spotting scopes," Oakley said. 

"But you don't need really fancy equipment to get started. Because all you need is a keen interest in feathered wildlife."

Invest in a field guide

While you don't need fancy equipment, Oakley does suggest investing in a field guide.

You have to take your time, walk slow, step lightly.— Dwaine Oakley

He says there are many good options out there. He personally started with a Peterson Field Guide, and says Sibley Guides are also popular. 

For those who don't want to carry around a book, there are also apps including by Sibley, and iBird Pro. Those have the added benefit of recordings as well as images. 

Explore different habitats

To see different kinds of birds it's important to explore different habitats — Oakley says P.E.I. is a great place to do that. 

East Point is one of Oakley's favourite places to spot birds during migratory season. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"One good thing about P.E.I. is you're never far from finding a spot that has a different habitat type. You can go right from a mature hardwood forest all the way to beaches and dunes in the matter of a half-hour, 45 minutes, which is quite unique when you look at all the other provinces."

He says P.E.I. National Park — and the trails near it — are popular spots. 

This time of year, he suggests looking for locations that are "migrant traps." One of his favourite places is East Point, where he can see birds ready to head south. 

Be patient

Bird watching does take patience, and often some research — especially is there is a certain species for which you're looking. 

It can take patience to spot certain species, says Oakley. (Submitted by Dwaine Oakley)

"Just like people, there's secretive birds that just don't want to be seen," Oakley said.  

He says people should also think about what they're wearing, and how they move. 

"You can't go birding or out in the woods wearing very brightly-coloured clothes, thinking that you're going to be able to attract a wild animal. You have to take your time, walk slow, step lightly."

Listen carefully 

It's not just about observing with your eyes — it's important to listen carefully. 

"Eighty-five per cent or 90 per cent of the species that I recognize at first, I hear them call or sing first before I physically see them," Oakley said. 

He says at first, people who are new to birding may find it difficult to distinguish between different birds, particularly during mating season.

"But once you start to break them down, and listen for the different songs between species, it's just like listening to a conversation at your local Tim Hortons. You'll be able to pick out certain individuals, just like we're able to recognize our own family members."

You can go birding in any season

Birding isn't just a summer activity, Oakley says. And the cooler weather shouldn't let people stop them from heading outdoors. 

Even in the winter, there are birds to be spotted. (Submitted by Jill Poirier)

"Just because a lot of birds migrate in the fall, there's some that come into our region in the wintertime, and then there's those that we refer to as residents, that they don't leave all year," Oakley said.

"Even in the middle of a snowstorm, there's going to be birds somewhere."

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About the Author

Sarah MacMillan is a reporter with CBC Sudbury. She previously worked with CBC P.E.I. You can contact her at


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